Ex-Google Strategist Talks Avoiding & Recovering from SEO Disasters

SEO Disasters

SEO disasters represent an ideal learning opportunity for other websites, according to a former Google Search Quality strategist.

Speaking at Prague Gaming & Tech Summit 2024, Kaspar Szymanski shared three case studies of notable search failures, and top tips on how to avoid (and subsequently) recover from receiving a Google penalty or loss of search visibility.

Tip 1: SEO Must Be Centralised

Using the anonymised example of a premium European retail brand, Kaspar highlighted the dangers of SEO being a decentralised marketing strategy. Following a number of unsuccessful migrations, all of which saw the site’s visibility increasingly decay, the brand decided the answer to their problems was to decentralise its SEO strategy. In reality, this was the final nail in the coffin.

In this case, decentralisation meant delegating responsibility for the website’s technical SEO architecture and content output to the brand’s local-language teams. This led to inconsistency when it came to both technical and user experience signals in the eyes of Google, reflecting the variability in the real experience of the brand’s users, depending on the country they were accessing the website from.

Kaspar Szymanski
Kaspar Szymanski speaking at Prague Gaming & Tech Summit 2024.

Kaspar explained that Google is all about signal consistency, stating that: “If your website is a hodgepodge of technology, the signals will be weak.”

Ultimately, a website must deploy a joined-up and centralised approach to its SEO strategy. Likening the stakeholders involved in the process to a Formula 1 team, successful websites ultimately have one principal, one owner responsible for setting the overall strategic direction.

Tip 2: Audit Regularly, Including Pre-emptive Reviews

While an SEO audit might be something you think you should turn to in the event of an SEO disaster, Kaspar spoke of the importance of carrying out periodic, pre-emptive SEO audits. Every aspect of an SEO strategy should be regularly reviewed, from on-page initiatives such as technical SEO and content, through to off-page activities such as a site’s backlink profile.

In the case of the retail site, carrying out a full audit prior to undertaking - and following - any site migration (which ranged from changing domain to switching up its URL structure) would likely have uncovered the root cause of the loss in visibility. For the retailer, this ultimately came down to a crude implementation of a 301 redirect policy, meaning that users were being routed to pages completely unrelated to the original URL - fundamentally breaking the site’s UX. 

Tech SEO audit

Coupled with a lingering manual spam action on one of their newly acquired domain names, which an audit might well have identified, the decentralisation of SEO was frankly the least of the site’s issues!

Tip 3: Focus on Fewer, But Higher Quality Pages

Kaspar’s second case study was that of a travel comparison site. Having seen some international success in the pre-pandemic era, the business decided to expand in the simplest way possible: adding five additional languages and target markets in one go. 

In doing so, the brand made a number of fundamental missteps:

  1. It directly translated its English content, rather than localising it according to SEO best practices and country-level nuances.
  2. It believed a myth that there was a blanket rule stipulating that more landing pages meant more ranking opportunities. As a result, every single filter option on the site was opened for indexing, leading its total indexable URLs to rise sharply to over 600 million. 
  3. It did not effectively use canonical tag or hreflang attributes.

The result of these mistakes meant that the brand created a huge cannibalisation issue, with multiple landing pages competing against each other for the same query - leading to a massive loss in traffic. 

Moreover, with the site’s Google crawl budget being exhausted on its 600 million pages, content updates were not being indexed quickly enough, meaning a lot of content had expired when users clicked on it (for example, a ‘travelling to Prague in March’ query may surface a page relevant to February instead). 

The site was ultimately able to recover from its losses by vastly cutting down on the number of its indexable URLs (to the tune of tens of millions) and optimising content for the local market in question.

Tip 4: Understand the Risks When Building Links

The final case study focused on a medical website, which was a platform for booking cosmetic procedures. Being a relatively small marketing team, the site outsourced many of its activities, including off-page SEO and link building.

However, following building a relatively strong market share, the site’s rankings suddenly tanked as the result of a Google manual action. The cause? A spike and subsequent decline in referring domains spoke to obvious SEO link building being carried out at unnaturally high volumes.

One of the site’s fatal flaws was its belief that authority metrics had a bearing on search rankings, looking exclusively at DA when it came to identifying sites to acquire backlinks from. Having seen some success when it first started carrying out link building activities, it increased its budget in this area exponentially over the course of several months.

Link building

As a result, when many of the linking sites were exposed as being part of a PBN and linking scheme, the medical site was one of many casualties that had clearly built links in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines.

Kaspar was clear in his belief that building links should only be done for direct traffic acquisition purposes - e.g. acquiring nofollow links that lead directly to conversions, rather than for ‘SEO equity’ purposes. In my personal view, this recommendation isn’t always practical, particularly in highly competitive industries such as iGaming. 

Instead, it’s important to be aware that link building is a black hat technique that carries inherent risks. By understanding these dangers, sites can take an informed view on link building and mitigate against the creation of any unnatural patterns (such as building a ‘mushroom graph’ of referring domains). 

Tip 5: Any Penalty Can Be Lifted

In every SEO disaster mentioned, Kaspar was keen to emphasise that any Google penalty can be lifted, but it’s important to know exactly how to do so. The typical process consists of:

  1. In the case of a link-related manual action, create and submit a disavow file to Search Console, ensuring you take a very thorough and honest view of links that have been built in an unnatural way.
  2. Consider your unique selling proposition - why does your site provide users with content that deserves to be ranked in the first place?
  3. Before submitting your reconsideration request, ensure all actions have been addressed. With a review period of between eight hours to eight weeks, it’s important that you don’t cut any corners, particularly as Google will review if the issue was actually fixed at the time your request was submitted.
  4. Be as short and concise as possible, and submit your request in the language of your website. Kaspar believes it looks unusual to the reviewer if you submit your request in a different language - going against some advice currently being perpetuated on LinkedIn.
People climbing a graph, representing recovery

Finally, Kaspar was keen to emphasise that user experience is everything. Creating content for real users, catering to their behaviour and needs, will always succeed over creating content purely to satisfy what you believe search engines reward.

Being hit by a Google penalty or other SEO disaster can be one of the most catastrophic events you’ll face as a website owner. Lean on the expertise of ICS-digital’s technical SEO team when it comes to recovering from manual actions or an algorithm-based loss in your site’s organic visibility.